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Car Talk

The Auto Issue


Published February 18, 2009 at 6:27 a.m.

Rathe's Salvage in Colchester - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Rathe's Salvage in Colchester

They’re hardly on a roll, but Vermont auto dealers claim the Green Mountain State isn’t the worst place to do business in a recession. There’s the unavoidable fact that the state’s rural geography, harsh weather and lack of public transportation make it almost impossible to go without wheels here — like it or not, that’s a plus for car-related commerce. Then there’s the happy coincidence that Vermont boasts one of the lowest mortgage foreclosure rates in the country, and its banks are still making loans.

Where traditional lending institutions draw the line, credit unions have stepped up, according to Dan Bokan, general manager at Shearer Chevrolet. “We’re doing business with a lot of them.” And where even credit unions dare not tread, dealers are getting creative. Shearer’s “Fresh Start Financing,” one of only a few programs of its kind in the state, hooks customers up with a collection agency that customizes the financing package based on an in-depth analysis of their credit profile. Using this system, says Bokan, “we can guarantee anybody a loan.”

What Bokan can’t guarantee is that people are feeling sufficiently confident to sign on the dotted line. “People are concerned about their jobs, and their income, and they’re holding on to their money to see what’s going to happen with this new administration,” he says. “And I can understand that.”

Fear is the greatest enemy of current car sales, according to Dave Birmingham, who sells Hyundai, Toyota, Subaru, Kia and Mitsubishi at three locations around the state. That’s why Hyundai has rolled out a new assurance program that lets you walk away from your car, debt-free, if you lose your job within 12 months of buying it. “Just because you’ve had some bad luck doesn’t mean you should have bad credit,” Birmingham says, noting no one has yet taken advantage of the creative return policy. Curiously, his current “closing ratio” is higher than it’s ever been. Birmingham’s explanation: “It’s the middle of winter: If they want to buy a car, they’re out. If they don’t, they’re not.”

Dealerships that depend on new car sales for survival are just trying to keep their businesses on the road these days. Having a really strong back end — the parts, service and used-car part of the business — is crucial. Independent mechanics and salvage yards look to be the beneficiaries of the new Depression-era approach to car maintenance, as evidenced in the stories in this week’s issue.

But even well-tuned vehicles don’t run forever, and auto dealers are counting on that fact. “Try to spend wisely, let people know you’re still out there, and give em a reason to come in,” is Birmingham’s advice to fellow car sellers. If that doesn’t work, the self-described optimist has this prediction: “There’s a certain point where people get sick of the doom and gloom. Where they say, ‘I still have my job. I still have money in the bank. I’m making mortgage payments. It’s OK to buy a car, or to go out to dinner. We’ve always survived, and we’re going to survive this.’”

Stories in the Auto Issue:

Road Scholar: A driver rehab specialist holds the key to getting people behind the wheel

Noble Salvage: Are Vermont's used auto parts peddlers benefiting from hard times?

Road Rules: Driving delivery can be a wild ride

Maximizing Your Mileage - Getting By: How Vermonters are Surviving the Recession